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pathways (essays)

Neil Munro


First exposure to history, whether it be at home or at school, will almost certainly be at an age when the child can do no other than expect to be told the truth.

So, from the very beginning, whether we find history dull or exciting, easy or hard, we do at least assume that we are being given an accurate account of the past. Our subsequent growing up can be seen as a process of progressively shedding the literal beliefs of early life, from Father Christmas and Easter Bunny, to parental infallibility and perhaps religion; the literal truth of the history we learn could be regarded as a further casualty along that road. I wonder, though, whether we ever quite shake off the feeling that if a book or a film claims to be historical, then it should represent the past as it indeed was. To take a topical example, is it only British national pride which is offended when American film makers rewrite the history of the last war to the greater glory of the United States? Or are we feeling what we may later learn of Montesquieu, who wrote of Voltaire that the latter was "comme les moines, qui n'écrivent pas pour le sujet qu'ils traitent, mais pour la gloire de leur ordre"?

There is indeed much that we have to learn if we aspire to knowledge of history and of the philosophy behind it, but we will with great probability come to the subject sharing this almost universal prejudice that we have a right to believe what is presented as history. Perhaps an early doubt will creep in when we are told that the very word "history" is the Greek for "inquiry", a doubt quickly strengthened by the most superficial reflection on the frightening ease with which we can and often do misunderstand things we are told in our daily life; what the military know as the "three-and-fourpence syndrome". We go on to learn that one of the founding fathers of history, Herodotus, dealt almost exclusively with events to which he could personally interview eye-witnesses, any other accounts presumed to be unreliable.

R G Collingwood tells us that a great deal of the history of writing history is about the gradual increase in the professionalism of historians, their growing skills in evaluating and comparing sources and authorities, the realisation that the net must be cast as wide as, no, wider than possible, in order to catch every related fact which may cast light on an event. And these facts must then be checked against each other. The slow emergence of the scholarship of inscriptions provided further help, as did the study of linguistics. From the latter we can learn much about a society by observing the words which have passed into the language as metaphors; for example, what.' but an agrarian society would use the word "disseminate", or sowing of seeds, for the spread of knowledge?

We may have assumed that biography, or indeed any form of monograph, by delving very deeply into one subject, would result in something near to a true and accurate account. But to present any subject in full clarity necessitates reference to a myriad facts and relationships, which the monographer would find quite beyond the scope of his work.

It is the case that there are simply too many facts, even after the historian has followed E H Carr's procedure of selecting only the significant ones, what he calls "the facts of history". And this of course brings us right up against the major obstacle to objectivity — the historian himself. For the person who decides what are the "facts of history" is a human being, who, be he as professional and well- intentioned as may be imagined, comes complete with the full complement of background, education, attitudes, opinions, likes and dislikes. And, which we will return to, he is a man of his time. He may even have a belief in one or other of the great determinist theories of history, which will be better suited by some facts than by others. Try as he will, a historian who believes with Hamlet that "there's a divinity that shapes our ends", will inevitably see the course of history through those particular eyes. In ways of which he may himself be ignorant, that will affect how he reports and above all how he selects what happened. And if he is a Christian, how can he help regarding events before the birth of Christ in a different light to the history of the Christian era? Carr rightly warns us that the facts of history cannot be pure, being always "refracted through the mind of the recorder!'. Before reading a history, he suggests that the reader should first study the historian. He offers, no doubt unwittingly, what may be thought flagrant confirmation of this in his own preface, where he refers to the evils of Stalinism and McCarthyism on the basis of something perilously close to moral equivalence.

There is another way in which the historian is himself a barrier to objectivity. Although the distinction made between historians and chroniclers seems to be a perfectly proper one, nonetheless it does on occasion appear that the former view the latter with a certain disdain. "Such work is useful," says Collingwood, "but it is not history". When historians insist, as they generally do, that their work is not only to record facts, but also to interpret them, they are by definition adopting a subjective approach to history. This is the precise opposite of objectivity. It must of course be acknowledged that historians do not pretend otherwise; they accept that this inevitably increases the difficulty of writing factually, but believe that not to seek to enter into the minds of those about whom they write would destroy any claim they have to be writing history at all. And not only does the historian have to work to overcome his subjective viewpoint, with its countless cultural and linguistic assumptions, he has also to contend with the colossal problem of anachronism.

As we pursue our studies we find we have to undertake very little research to become aware of warnings on all sides about the perils of anachronism. The past, we learn from Hegel, is entirely different and must be seen on its own terms. We find varying echoes of this from many writers; Arthur Marwick tells us that only by understanding the past as it was then understood, can we draw value from it now; Collingwood is even less accommodating — judging the past, he says, is entirely inappropriate, since we were not and never can be part of it.

One common error of anachronism is the application of today's morality to yesterday's society. In a post- colonial world indignation comes easily when writing, for example, about Columbus, Cortes, Pissaro. But objectivity requires that accounts of Spanish conquests should be firmly rooted in awareness that these people, the space travellers of their day, were not only seeking great riches, but were discovering the totally unknown, and were generally seen as doing God's work by carrying the Gospel to savage, heathen and therefore, to fifteenth and sixteenth century European minds, inferior creatures. In judging them differently now, we must realise that we are the prisoners of the intervening centuries of history, of Reformation, Enlightenment, Tom Paine, Democracy, Liberalism, Darwin, Marx, Mill and Freud. Toynbee tells us that the mere facts of such phenomena as the Nation State and Industrial Society make it quite impossible for us to regard other forms of society in an unprejudiced manner. We do not necessarily think of these others as inferior, but we simply cannot "unknow" all of the things that make us what we are and condition our view of anything else.

Hindsight is another powerful distorter. King Harold's housecarls, thegns and levies, many of them far from spry after the previous engagement at Stamford Bridge, may have realised they had a serious scrap on their hands at Senlac Hill. Their strategic thinking however would not have gone further than the awareness by a few of them that Sweyn of Denmark was still to be reckoned with. They were certainly not aware that losing to William would mean the end of Anglo-Saxon England and the beginning of the Norman dynasty, with all of the attendant far-reaching and permanent changes to this island's culture, language, society and laws. We know that now, which is why we know rather a lot about Hastings, a bit less about Stamford Bridge, and relatively little about many of the equally ferocious battles which were commonplace for centuries before and after 1066. of course this is not to say that we should not learn that Hastings was indeed highly significant, because of what followed, but it does inevitably distort our view of what people were thinking and therefore doing at the time. I think the important thing is for the historian to be quite open with his readers when he is making use of hindsight.

So now what do we think about objectivity in history? We have made some important discoveries. First, we have seen how difficult it is to find out just what were the facts of history. Second, we need to accept that even if we could find them out, merely recording them is not really history at all. Third, it becomes clear that to do more than simply record events, that is, to explain and interpret, means attempting to project oneself into the past, and thus to adopt a subjective stance, which is the opposite of objectivity. And finally we should now know that such a stance is made fearfully difficult both by its very subjectivity and also by all of the problems of anachronism.

Indeed we may conclude that the subjectivity inherent in writing good history, necessarily precludes the possibility of there being an absolute historical truth. We would not be in bad company; Sir George Clark refers to the doctrine that "there is no 'objective' historical truth"; and Sir Isaiah Berlin goes further in claiming that "purely descriptive history is a figment of abstract theory." Well, we have assuredly come a long way from our childish faith in the total factual reliability of history. But, while accepting that we are not going to find true objectivity, we should have learned enough to enable us in some measure to compensate for its limitations.

The first thing we should do when picking up a history book is to follow Carr's advice and find out all that we can about the author. Does the dust-cover describe him as a regular contributor to the Observer, or to the Spectator? Perhaps it is even more helpful and refers to him as being in the tradition of Whig historians, or can we see that he has written several books on the subject of Marxism? We may have read a review of the book, couched in terms which makes the author's viewpoint clear. None of this should put us off reading the book, but it should enable us to aim off in our minds for views which the author may express.

Then we must recall the comments of Collingwood and others about the professionalism needed to write good history. Collingwood acknowledges that one hundred percent objectivity will never be attained, but by having it as an objective, he maintains that constant improvement is possible. We can judge for ourselves whether what we read, where appropriate, meets the three rules of what Collingwood refers to as Cartesian historiography:

1. Is it possible?

2. Have conflicting reports or authorities been reconciled?

3. Have written sources been checked against non-literary evidence?

And we can apply our own judgement to the question of whether the historian has fallen into any of the traps of anachronism.

There is a further aid to accuracy, if a little obscure. Some exposure to the ideas of Henri Bergson, aided by an interest in Proust, may encourage the student of the philosophy of history to ponder the relationship between past and present. The present, thought Bergson, is really just a constantly changing update of the past; it contains all of the past. Careful study and analysis of the present, or by extension of any event or point in the past, can therefore reveal aspects of the more distant past, and can go some way to explain the nature of that event or point in time. Much of Proust's great novel consists of this fluid movement through time, showing how past events can become clearer when subjected to the scrutiny of later years and changed attitudes.

By learning and by reflection therefore, while accepting that good history will not be entirely objective, we come to understand that it can nonetheless be good history.